Two or three years ago, the first cold winds of middle age came knocking at my door. My muscles ached after an hour of softball and my mind turned to mush by ten o’clock every night. But I resolved to fight back. The decision is commonplace enough; we all know graying men who seek the fountain of youth with hot-air balloons or low-slung sportscars. I chose a more moderate and productive course. I snuggled down with a cup of hot chocolate, a woolen blanket, and a plan: to reread the beloved classics of children’s literature. Whether this was a coward’s flight from the hard facts of aging or a heroic attempt to keep my youth intact, I still do not know. I do know that it was magic.
When I opened the first slender volume, the doors of memory flew open as well. I hurtled back a quarter of a century and became again a boy with a book on a long summer afternoon, ready to tumble, like Alice, into a wonderland of words. Time-travel, I discovered, is indeed a reality; how grand that it is reserved for older folks. I found, too, that the pleasure of rereading was more than that of stepping into the past; it was the thrill of meeting a past illuminated by the present, of bringing to these cherished children’s books an adult’s appreciation of irony, wit, characterization, and plot. I read with two sets of eyes at once, that of youth and that of maturity, and my vision was never so keen.
So one joy tumbled after another, until I came to the oldest classic of them all, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 work of high adventure and humble religiosity, Robinson Crusoe. As a scholar, I knew the importance of Robinson Crusoe. The tale is so famous that Robinson is often taken to be a real man who suffered a real shipwreck, a mix-up of fiction and fact bestowed upon only one other literary protagonist, Sherlock Holmes. That Robinson Crusoe exists at all is a miracle. Few could have predicted such a masterpiece of good feeling and fortitude from a man described by Jonathan Swift as a “grave, sententious, dogmatical rogue.” The miracle is compounded when one learns that Defoe, who made his living as a journalist, churned out seven other books the same year he fathered Robinson. But somehow the most famous survivor in history was born, and his popularity was instant and undying. A count taken in 1979 found 1,198 editions in English alone (the number has increased since then), plus translations into innumerable tongues. There is even an 1820 Latin version for schoolboys, Robinson Crusoeus.
For my return to Robinson’s island, I chose the Norton Critical Edition. I picked it up eagerly, anticipating what my memory assured me was a streamlined adventure tale, far from the ambiguities and complications of the adult world. What could be simpler, after all, than shipwreck and survival? The book seemed curiously weighty in my hands, thicker than I remembered; thicker in style, too. Well, I thought, perhaps I read an abridged version as a child; they must have simplified the language. No matter. Abridgments, when done with care, generally retain the gist of the original, although they necessarily deflate the art. And after all, how could one mangle an adventure book? One episode of derring-do more or less should make no difference, I reasoned.
The first sentence of Robinson reassured me, despite its cumbersome length: “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull . . . .” This at least was familiar territory. I sighed with pleasure and settled into my armchair. As the plot unfolded, however, I began to wonder. I did not remember Robinson being quite so obstreperous, or his early life such an unbounded misery on land and sea, such a jagged sequence of poverty, imprisonment, even a shipwreck that presages the more famous one. The mystery was compounded when I discovered-still in the first thirty pages-that Robinson had been a slaver. Well, I argued, the abridgers had left this out to protect tender sensibilities.
But soon I realized that something was terribly amiss. It was not only Robinson’s character that was different, but the very significance of his shipwreck, the very meaning of his life. What I discovered in the unabridged Robinson clashed, in every important point of substance and style, with the abridged Robinson of my memory. Moreover, what seemed to be missing from my childhood version-what loomed before me in Defoe’s original text-was hardly material one would wish to hide from children. On the contrary, the most savage cuts-those that tore the heart out of the novel-had removed just those passages that I would have thought any parent would most want his child to read.
Perhaps, you think, I fuss over nothing. What does it matter if I once read a bad abridgment? But there is far more to it than that. Before I demonstrate exactly what I stumbled upon and why it matters so much, let us refresh our memories of Robinson. We will then be able to judge whether my experience is unique or whether it exposes a grave truth about our culture.
Just about everyone, reader or not, can recite the highlights of Robinson’s adventures: A man is shipwrecked without resources on a desert island, survives for years by his own wits, undergoes immeasurable anguish as a result of his isolation, discovers a footprint in the sand that belongs to Friday, and is finally rescued from his exile. Such is our common store of Robinsoniana, to which 99 out of 100 people will agree.
All of it is wrong.
Robinson’s island is not a desert in our modern sense of the word, he does not proceed without resources, he does not live solely by his wits, he does not suffer inordinately for his solitude, and that famous footprint-the best known in the world-does not belong to Friday. Even the word “rescue,” for Robinson’s eventual escape from the island, is false. But more significant than any of these details is that our overall perception of Robinson Crusoe is wrong. The single most important fact about this boy’s adventure book is that it is not a boy’s adventure book at all. It is, rather, a grown-up tale of a man’s discovery of himself, civilization, and God.
As Defoe’s book begins, Robinson Crusoe of York commits what he calls his “Original Sin”—he spurns his father’s advice to join the family business and instead heads out to sea. Robinson is self-willed, arrogant, and hungry for exploits. Catastrophes ensue—storms, shipwrecks, and slavery—but the lad continues in his follies. “I was,” he confesses, “to be the willful Agent of all my own Miseries.”
Then providence gives him a second chance, shipwrecking him on an Atlantic island, whose features roughly match those of the Juan Fernandez group in the Pacific Ocean where Robinson’s real-life prototype, Alexander Selkirk, passed seven years in solitude. Robinson’s island is a pristine land of surpassing beauty. To its forlorn first inhabitant, it seems nothing short of Eden: “the Country appear’d so fresh, so green, so flourishing, every thing being in a constant Verdure, or Flourish of Spring, that it looked like a planted Garden.”
In this paradise Robinson builds a new home-without Eve, alas; such is his penance. He also builds a new self, in the Pauline sense: “Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Robinson no longer follows his own will, but bows before the will of God. He learns to see in his calamities “the Work of Providence,” and to discern the hand of God at every moment of his life. He opens his Bible and repents, calling out, “Lord, be my help!”
This conversion does not go unrequited; as Robinson surrenders to God, the island surrenders to him. Step by step, he recapitulates in miniature the rise of civilization. He handles a tool for the first time and builds himself a chair and table. He needs a shovel, so he makes one, although “never was a shovel . . . so long a-making.” He hammers a wall, plants a field, keeps a herd of goats. As his conversion deepens, so does his fortune. He builds a second establishment deep inland, and admits that “I fancy’d now I had my Country-House, and my Sea-Coast House.” He declares himself “Lord of all this country . . . as compleatly as any Lord of a Manor in England.”
All this can be shrugged off as a crude example of Protestant work ethic: sweat enough and your lot will increase. But this flip analysis ignores the crucial issue and the book’s great gift: Defoe’s account of how a civilization is born. What transforms chaos into cosmos, survivalism into society, is obedience to God. “I acquiesced in the Dispositions of Providence, which I began now to own, and to believe, ord’d every Thing for the best,” Robinson says. So profound is his transformation that he comes to thank God for his dolorous shipwreck: “I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life was, with all its miserable Circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable Life I led all the past Part of my Days.” Through God’s mercy, Robinson’s life is spared, his soul cleansed, and civilization born.
When Friday appears, the process repeats itself. Robinson names Friday, clothes him, arms him, teaches him to make fire and bake bread, gives him the keys to the treasury of Western history, science, and religion. Those who read this as imperialist fantasy miss the point: through his newfound wisdom, Robinson is able to share with others the good harvest he has reaped. He saves Friday’s father and a Spaniard from cannibals, and becomes a king: “I thought myself very rich in subjects . . . . I was absolute Lord and lawgiver; they all owed their Lives to me.” Robinson’s life comes full circle when he rescues a boatload of Englishmen; the grateful mariners see in their deliverer not a Job afflicted by God’s cruel whims, but a divine messenger: “He must be sent directly from heaven,” says one, echoing what the Maltese said about St. Paul, another victim of shipwreck, to which Robinson replies with the humility of the truly converted, “All Help is from Heaven.” Defoe’s story achieves its ironic end as Robinson, now an agent of God’s providence, maroons a shipload of pirates and returns to Europe a wealthy man, respected for his kindness and generosity.
Robinson Crusoe is, then, nothing less than a textbook in the appropriate relationships amongst human being, culture, and God. It might fairly be retitled, Civilization and Its Contents. The lessons couldn’t be more clear: Welfare and worship are inseparable; both the well-ordered state and the well-ordered individual rest squarely upon the divine. Every component of civilization-shelter, handicraft, agriculture, and animal husbandry no less than law, art, and worship-ultimately depends upon a vigorous relationship with God; “In God We Trust” would sit well on Robinson’s coins.
This is not an eccentric reading of the text: Robinson Crusoe’s spiritual depths are evident to all who read it unabridged. Whenever I include it on a syllabus, my students are thunderstruck by the power of Robinson’s conversion; I suspect it leads one or two readers to their own fruitful self-examination. In just this way-as manual of conversion and guide to the good life-was Robinson understood for centuries. A typical assessment comes from George Chalmers, author of a 1790 biography of Defoe: “Few books have ever so naturally mingled amusement with instruction. The attention is fixed, either by the simplicity of the narration, or by the variety of the incidents; the heart is amended by a vindication of the ways of God to man.” In Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone, the kindly butler Mr. Betteridge delivers an even more enthusiastic appraisal:
Such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years—generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco—and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad—Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice—Robinson Crusoe . In past times, when my wife plagued me; in present times, when I have had a drop too much—Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe set me right again.
It’s a good thing, I thought, that Mr. Betteridge did not rely for counsel on the version I read as a child. He would have searched in vain for the favorite passages that uplifted his soul. My childhood version was a most curious case of bowdlerization, in which the scissors snipped away at something other than scatological language or gore or sizzling sex. The truth was much more startling: all the religion had been excised. Again and again, one particular word had been removed, along with every scene inspired by that word.
What was this three-letter obscenity too dangerous for the eyes of children? The word was “God.”
But surely, I thought, this cannot be. Perhaps in my youth I had read an outlaw edition, the joke of some madcap Nietzschean who took it literally that God was dead. I rushed to my local library-a well-stocked collection in a college town-and scooped up every copy of Robinson Crusoe on the shelves. Almost all of them proved to be abridgments. Every single one showed the same bleak pattern, the evisceration from the text of almost every scrap or shred of religion.
Let us consider a typical example, a “Doubleday Classics” edition called simply Robinson Crusoe . The book bears no date, but the illustrations are copyrighted 1945; perhaps this is the same version I read as a boy. The frontispiece offers a delightful drawing of Robinson, umbrella in hand as if out for a stroll on Brighton Beach, discovering the footprint in the sand. Anyone picking up this edition would assume it to be the genuine article, especially as there is no mention of abridgment on the title page or anywhere else. However, this is Robinson Crusoe after a visit from the thought police. Witness, for example, our hero’s journal, kept at the beginning of his exile when he still had ink. The entries for June 27 through July 4, 1660-stretching for over three thousand words by my rough count-contain some of Robinson’s most exalted religious writing, as he nearly succumbs to a terrible fever and utters “the first Prayer, if I may call it so, that I had made for many Years.” As the illness abates Robinson reads the Bible:
I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a kind of Extasy of Joy, I cry’d out aloud, Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance!
This was the first time that I could say, in the true Sense of the words, that I pray’d in all my Life; for now I pray’d with a Sense of my condition, and with a true Scripture View of Hope founded on the encouragement of Word of God; and from this Time, I may say, I began to have Hope that God would hear me.
God did hear Robinson, but readers of this Doubleday edition certainly won’t, for the passage quoted above-in many ways the core of the book-has been completely removed. Moreover, Defoe’s three-thousand-word account of Robinson’s soul-wrestlings has been sliced in half, and-as you might expect by now-all references to Christ have been erased.
Yet this example is far from the worst of the lot. Let us turn now to the truly mind-boggling The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1977), a version that at least admits what it is about, declaring itself as “adapted.” Here any hint of divine providence is simply chopped away wholesale, as if removing a cancer. That pesky word “God,” which appears hundreds of times in Defoe’s original text, remains in only ten places, usually in conventional phrases (“For God’s sake, Smith, throw down your arms”). Not a hint of Robinson’s conversion remains.
Well, I assured myself, as inexcusable as these cuts may be, at least they haven’t been inflicted upon adults. Then it dawned upon me that most adults draw their knowledge of Robinson from abridged versions scanned in childhood. Moreover, for a refresher course, most adults would turn not to Defoe’s unabridged original, but rather to the movies. Perhaps here there was hope. I rushed down to the local video store, where I discovered that only one version is readily obtainable: Crusoe (1989), starring Aidan Quinn. Surely in an R-rated film, I thought, there might be a little room for God. But I had forgotten Hollywood’s knack for rewriting history. Sure enough, every sign of Robinson’s conversion had been removed. Crusoe , in fact, manages the neat feat of completely reversing Defoe’s intent, transforming Robinson into an antireligious tract in which our hero utters but one prayer, a desperate plea to God to spare the life of his dog. The prayer goes unanswered (unspoken premise: no God exists to answer the prayer). The film also inverts Robinson’s tutelage of Friday: the native learns no English but the Englishman goes native, dropping his table manners if not his aitches, and learning to worship sun and sand.
But at least in Crusoe our hapless Englishman does not apply for membership in Friday’s cannibal tribe. This weird turn of events is reserved for the mercifully hard-to-obtain 1975 Man Friday , starring Peter O’Toole as Robinson, with Richard Roundtree in the title role. Here orthodox religion is not ignored as in Crusoe, but rather mocked without mercy. Robinson proves to be a fool, God a prude, Christian faith a sign of mental illness. The voice of reason, warmth, and love belongs to Friday. At least in this respect Man Friday conforms to Defoe’s intent, for in the original, Friday is indeed a kind and perceptive man. But just when writer Adrian Mitchell seems to have gotten something right, it blows up in his face; for Man Friday presents a Friday who has hung out too long at Woodstock. His tribe has more in common with the Hog Farm or Summerhill than with any real preindustrial society. It is a blissful communal family, free of such Western hangups as ambition or competition, and practices free love-polymorphously perverse, of course. The tribe’s religion, too, has burst free of the chains of orthodoxy, offering instead, as Friday explains, the apotheosis of be-your-own-best-friend:
Worship any way you like as long as you mean it. God won’t mind. To yourself you are not yet God. I do not think you worship yourself as you should. But still you are God, whether you know it or not.
In the end, Robinson is summarily dispatched back to his lonely island, to brood in solitude over his Bible and its joyless legacy.
Hollywood’s fascination with Robinson Crusoe continues apace: a big-budget version, starring Pierce Brosnan-the new James Bond-is now in production. Will 007 kneel in the muck, begging God for deliverance? Maybe so; Hollywood likes on occasion to throw a sop to special interest groups. But it’s a sure bet that the full story of Robinson’s conversion will be left on the cutting-room floor.
It is not difficult to see in the strange saga of Robinson Crusoe a parable of our own condition. We are all Robinsons, cut off from the mainland of religious tradition, shipwrecked on the shoals of secularism. Our culture as a whole has suffered the same fate as Defoe’s book; a systematic purgation of religious content. In thus assaying our lot, it is essential that we avoid seeing conspirators behind every gunwale; our fingers can point only at ourselves. At no time, I am convinced, was there a deliberate suppression of Robinson’s religion in order to buttress secular claims. Culture does not evolve-or collapse-so consciously. Revisionist editors and revisionist filmmakers work in good faith, but they work within a culture that is suffocating for lack of connection with traditional faith. This suffocation has brought with it its own form of amnesia or cultural brain damage. Few artists and critics even remember that people once worshipped a God who gave ultimate meaning to civilization’s great creations, from law to literature, as He did for Robinson’s meaner crafts. Intended or not, the results have been devastating. As anyone who spends much time dealing with intellectual history knows, truth seems to be slipping from our grasp; we are in danger of fabricating a past-and not only in English literature-to suit our present biases.
Our contemporary allergy to the sacred, and our related inability to read history with any rigor, is thrown into sharp relief when we look at the critical interpretations of Robinson bandied about in recent years. “Today we no longer read the story as a . . . religious parable, but recognize it as . . . an allegory of the human condition,” announces J. R. Hammond in A Defoe Companion (1993), taking for granted a divorce between religion and “the human condition.” Still more supercilious is Martin Green’s 1990 appraisal of a 1955 compilation of Methodist sermons entitled The Gospel of Robinson Crusoe that reads Defoe’s tale for what it is, a story of spiritual travail. This book, says Green, was “simply out of date. It was a mere oddity. Any audience it may have had in 1955 must have belonged to a special group, out of step with the majority.” Such, Green assures, us, is the consensus of “men and women of letters.”
Who, then, is Robinson, to those who thus ignore the text? A Marxist hero, for one: in 1933, the Soviet Writers circle declared Defoe, along with Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift, as one of the three great foreign novelists of the Cause. Presumably Stalinists took their cue from Marx, who declared of Robinson in Das Kapital: “Of his prayers and the like we take no account.” Marx instead upheld Robinson as the representative of “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common.” Rousseau, by contrast, imagined Robinson as a prototype of the noble savage. Other critics have seen in Defoe’s book a parable about imperialism or social progress or oedipal conflicts. But the truth is that reading Robinson as a lesson in economics or psychology or pedagogy is akin to reading Moby Dick for its tips on spermaceti harvesting.
The question remains, Why does it matter? Why care about distortions of Robinson?
It matters first of all because truth matters. And it matters secondly because Robinson Crusoe matters. Robinson matters in its own right, as a splendid novel that deserves to remain intact; and Robinson matters in the history of the novel. Many critics count Defoe’s masterpiece as not just the most famous novel in the world, but the first novel in the world. This judgment depends on definition, of course, and a powerful argument can be mounted to push the genre back to Don Quixote , if not all the way to The Golden Ass. Nonetheless, all agree that Robinson Crusoe stands as a primordial example of the form. It is also, unquestionably, the first English novel, progenitor of a glorious stream whose great current encompasses Fielding and Dickens, Grahame and Lewis. As Leslie Stephens put it, Defoe did “discover a new art”—even if others had discovered it before him.
Admittedly, the art is rough; perhaps it always is, when a new form is whelped. Defoe forever jumbles facts, for instance having his hermit swim buck naked out to the shipwreck and then stuff his pockets with salvaged goodies. The text is long-winded, repetitious, sometimes frightfully crude. Defoe handles emotion poorly; as Dickens pointed out, Robinson “is the only example of a universally popular book that can make no one laugh and no one cry.” Its structure sags: Poe remarked that “we close the book and are quite satisfied that we could have written as well ourselves.” Yet Robinson Crusoe shines with power and beauty: power that stems from the universality of its hero’s plight, so elemental that it approaches myth; beauty that lies in the majesty of his redemption. As if conscious of his role as father of the novel, Defoe bequeathed us at the very origin of the genre a work that addresses the origin and destiny of human beings, of justice, freedom, and the state, of civilization itself; and he locates the source of these essential matters just where they must be found, in the very origin of all things.
Thirdly, our discussion matters because the novel itself matters. Although no longer the most popular narrative form (for who goes through more novels than movies in a year?), the novel remains first when it comes to intellectual clout (for who would prefer an Oscar to the Nobel Prize in Literature?). Moreover, the novel is the art of the public square par excellence. By the very nature of its production and distribution the novel cannot be privatized, as can, say, painting, which made a disastrous swerve towards subjectivity after World War I and in consequence is no longer a subject of serious public discourse. Nor can the novel’s subject matter be successfully privatized, as failed avant-garde experiments by Anais Nin and others have proven. True, the recent history of the novel shines with its own sickly decadence; one need only think of the efforts of French writers such as Natalie Sarraute or Alain Robbe-Grillet to deify style by exchanging moral or psychological depth for a richly patterned surface. But few people read these novels and fewer remember them. The fact remains that good novels (I mean novels as varied as The Brothers Karamazov, Pale Fire, and Silence ) invariably deal with relationships between people, or between people and God, and the moral implications of these relationships. Moreover, a novelist works alone (unlike an artist in theater or film); each novel is as individual-and as universal-as a prayer. Of all art forms, then, the novel-even when a tale of a solitary castaway-remains the essential aesthetic mediator between public and private realms.
Fourthly, our discussion matters because art matters, and the messages that art embodies. it matters because beauty matters, and the truths to which beauty points. One litmus test of any society will always be its sense of beauty. what clearer or more precise commentary on contemporary aesthetics do we need than the recent controversy about Andres Serrano’s image of Christ? This now-famous photograph cannot be rejected out of hand; in fact, it makes a perfect pivot for the debate about the role of art in society, for on first impression Serrano’s photo is undeniably beautiful, a haunting portrait of the crucified Christ suspended in a mysterious golden-red cloud, whose bubbles and streaks remind us of remote galaxies, ancient suns. But of course the photography has a title, and it comes like a slap in the face: Piss Christ. That this crucifix sits in urine is more than incidental; it forms the core of Serrano’s art.
Most viewers react to this photograph with howls of outrage. And properly so, for we perceive in it an indiscriminate mixing of the sacred and the profane (a confusion to which the post-conversion Robinson never falls prey; he always offers his earthly labors in service to God). We should not be surprised that Serrano’s photograph has the power to shock, for even in a secular age we instinctively recoil in the presence of sacrilege. Nor should we wonder that Serrano aims to shock, for such is the stock-in-trade of much contemporary art.
But real beauty is more than compelling sensory impressions (the immediate photograph), even when charged with intellectual electricity (the potent complex of associations surrounding crucifix and urine). Real beauty is also a matter of rightness. Real beauty always unfolds in a moral landscape; it reflects in its order, intelligence, and harmonious dispositions these same qualities in their transcendent state. Real beauty never divides, degrades, or corrupts. Rather it weds, elevates, and purifies. Such beauty always leads to God, for “God is beautiful and he loves beauty,” as the Islamic hadith has it. “Beauty summons all things to itself,” as Dionysius the Areopagite observes.
To put it succinctly, real beauty converts. Once conversion takes place—as Defoe shows so clearly in Robinson Crusoe—the human being expresses his love for the divine order through the beauty of his own creations, be they symphonies or straw baskets. In this enterprise, at its best, we draw near to God’s mysterious workings. as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “to the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of being, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created.” Witness the beauty of Shaker furniture; here we see what results when craft (the high art of all castaways and of all societies that have not abolished the sacred) is informed on every level of conception and execution by traditional spiritual understanding.
Finally, distortions of Robinson matter because culture matters. To grasp why, we must first recognize that secularism has muddled the relationship between religion and culture. My desktop dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language , defines culture as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population.” But are beliefs nothing more than a “product of human work and thought”? Not so, not entirely, not for those who admit the possibility of divine revelation. Here culture confesses what God expresses; culture is the medium through which we hear the muffled voice of God. For just this reason, dogmatic truths find different expression in different cultures. For just this reason as well, religion without culture is dead. According to Christopher Dawson, “a society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.” The reverse also holds. Without culture, religion will not long survive; thus it was in the cultural oases of Benedictine monasteries that the Christian faith of Europe withstood the barbarian centuries.
These days, culture forms the battleground between the sacred and the profane. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II makes the canny observation that “the struggle for the soul of the contemporary world is at its height where the spirit of this world seems strongest. In this sense the encyclical Redemptoris Missio speaks of modern Areopagi. Today these Areopagi are the worlds of science, culture, and media; these are the worlds of writers and artists, the worlds where the intellectual elite is formed.” Political activity has its role to play; but we can pass all the laws we want, and they will do no good if our culture remains marooned on secular seas. For those of us who are writers, artists, and intellectuals, culture is the ark. There can be no other. Culture (philosophy, art, social activity) has carried us into the modern debacle; culture must bring us out as well.
Some men and women heal their cultural wounds with radical surgery. They cut off from the larger social mass and establish their own insular subcultures, alive to the presence of God: the Amish, the Hutterites, the Shakers come to mind. Such an enterprise daunts the majority of human beings, for reasons both practical and moral. Those of us committed to the larger society, however, have good reason to hope. Transformations now underway hold, I believe, strong possibilities for the renewal of a genuinely spiritual culture. There are signs that people have woken up to their loss. Baby-boomers who abandoned the churches twenty years ago have streamed back to the pews; Gregorian chant floods the airwaves-an event inconceivable fifteen years ago.
Popular media, too, display everywhere the cracks and fissures of religion erupting after long suppression. At this very moment, more angels cluster on the New York Times best-seller list than on the head of any medieval pin. Science fiction in particular has kept alive the eschatological imagination in a skeptical age, albeit in camouflaged form: Stephen Spielberg’s ET is a transparent Christ figure, and his return to his spaceship a blatant technological Ascension. In fantasy fiction, dragons are on the rebound. Can St. George be far behind? Even New Age spirituality, anathema to traditionalists, can be read as a welcome respite from the relentless secularism of the age.
The unhappy truth is that rejection of orthodoxy has become a nearly inevitable phase in adolescent development; the happy sequel is that many people work their way back to church or synagogue through excursions into the New Age or other “alternative” religions. After all, how long can one dally with pastel-and-pink Aquarian cherubim before longing for an encounter with Gabriel’s stately beauty? How long can one read ersatz “channeled” scriptures before finding relief in the Bible or the Koran? Everyone hungers for real spiritual food; it is our job to make it available.
Where do we begin? Does Robinson Crusoe point the way? As a start, we might whisk all secular critics to a remote island where we could see how long they prattle on about “economic man” before dropping to their knees to pray God for deliverance. And at that point, of course, we would request an essay on the true meaning of Robinson Crusoe.
Fantasies aside, however, Robinson does offer at least the metaphorical outlines of a program to resolve the current crisis. First, we must retain whatever is worthy in our shipwrecked culture. We must turn to tradition for guidance, as Robinson turned to the remnants of Christian England strewn along his beach. At the same time, we must abandon any thought of returning wholesale to the past. Luddites, monarchists, and theocrats-all of whom ply their trade today in arenas as varied as Green politics and Islamic fundamentalism-offer only a different kind of shipwreck. We must acknowledge the enormity of our task; for when before has a secular culture rebuilt itself on sacred foundations? We need solutions as ingenious as any devised by our industrious hero. Like Robinson, we must never despair; like Robinson, we must find strength in prayer. It helps to bear in mind that it is we who have uprooted God from our homes, schools, books, arts; we have cast ourselves adrift. God, the master mariner, never abandons his children. We do well to remember, too, that Robinson found salvation in a plight more desperate than ours. Then, perhaps, we can relish the truth in Walter de la Mare’s heartfelt remark about Defoe’s finest creation: “Even to think of his admirable hermit is to be cheerful and to take heart of grace.”
Phillip Zaleski teaches Religion at Smith College and English at Wesleyan University. His book The Recollected Heart is forthcoming from HarperSanFrancisco.